Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Borderline (1950); or, The Noir Remake of It Happened One Night? (1934)

March 1, 1950, release date
Directed by William A. Seiter
Screenplay by Devery Freeman
Based on a story by Devery Freeman
Music by Hans J. Salter
Edited by Harry Keller
Cinematography by Lucien N. Andriot

Fred MacMurray as Johnny Macklin
Claire Trevor as Madeleine Haley
Raymond Burr as Pete Ritchie
Jose Torvay as Miguel
Morris Ankrum as Bill Whittaker
Roy Roberts as Harvey Gumbin
Don Diamond as Deusik
Nacho Galindo as Porfirio
Pepe Hern as Pablo
Grazia Narciso as Porfirio’s wife
Clifton Young as the suspect questioned by Whittaker
Charles Lane as Peterson, the customs officer
Johnny Indrisano as Gumbin’s henchman
Chrispin Martin as Pepi, the hotel clerk

Distributed by Universal International
Produced by Republic Pictures

Borderline has so many of the characteristics common to noir: murder, smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border, cops and federal agents working undercover. Claire Trevor, Raymond Burr, and Fred MacMurray were all veterans of film noir by the time Borderline was released in 1950. But the film has a plotline that I don’t find very often in films noir: romance fulfilled!

The film starts very specifically at the U.S. Treasury Department, Customs Agency Service. An agent interviews two dope smugglers, a couple, about their confiscated stash. The man is led away to be booked because he refuses to talk. The woman, on the other hand, agrees to talk, but she doesn’t know a whole lot about the agents’ main concern, a drug smuggler named Pete Ritchie, and she is led away to be booked, too.

The interview is observed through a two-way mirror by two agents, a police officer, and one woman (Madeleine Haley). Haley is with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). These four join the interviewer when he is finished with the two suspects, and Haley offers to go undercover to gather some information about Pete Ritchie. The police officer and the federal agents often talk about Haley in the third person, as if she is not even present (it helps to remember that this film was released in 1950). But Haley is persistent and insists on speaking for herself. She wants the undercover work. She has already proved herself as a capable Office of Special Services (OSS) agent during World War II. Finally, all the men agree, without consulting her, that Haley will go to Mexico to find out what she can about Pete Ritchie—but only because a woman might have better luck ensnaring a man, any man, including a dope smuggler.

Haley looks for Pete Ritchie in Mexico and finds him. She also meets another smuggler, Johnny Macklin, who gets his narcotics from Harvey Gumbin to smuggle from Mexico to the United States. Macklin and Gumbin are stealing the narcotics from Ritchie. Macklin’s latest haul, hidden in the bottom of a birdcage and in a music box, is ready to go across the border. He kidnaps Madeleine Haley and forces her to go with him—along with the birdcage and the music box—to the United States because he thinks she is Ritchie’s girlfriend and would be a good source of information. Of course, Macklin has no idea that Haley is a police officer and was never Ritchie’s girlfriend, and Haley knows very little about Macklin except that he’s another drug smuggler.

The two leads in Borderline are first repulsed by one another because of this mistaken identity. Both of them are agents working undercover in Mexico, and they are so good at their jobs that they fool one another. Macklin believes that Haley is the girlfriend of the notorious drug smuggler Pete Ritchie; Haley believes Macklin is Ritchie’s rival drug smuggler. Macklin is taking his latest drug haul, the one hidden in the bottom of the bird cage and in the music box, to the United States. But Macklin is also on the run from Ritchie and his gang of thugs. Ritchie has discovered that Macklin is stealing from him, and he won’t let this theft go unpunished. Macklin now has Haley for company; Ritchie also assumes that she will talk and figures he’ll kill her, too.

(This blog post about Borderline contains all the spoilers.)

Macklin and Haley are slowly drawn toward one another while they head north for the U.S.–Mexico border. Macklin never once suspects Haley of trying to escape and rejoining Ritchie, even though he thinks Haley is Ritchie’s girlfriend. While they are on the run, they stop for the night at a hotel, and Macklin allows Haley every opportunity to leave. When she gets ready to go to the communal bathroom down the hall, he tells her, “Don’t talk to strangers.” Haley’s response: “I don’t know any strangers.” Her wisecracking keeps Macklin on his toes, and he learns to appreciate her sense of humor.

Macklin and Haley’s trip north is not a smooth ride. They pose as a married couple so that Macklin will attract less suspicion and can smuggle the narcotics successfully. Their plans are nearly thwarted at almost every point, and not just because Ritchie is pursuing them. One of Macklin’s friends, who joins them on the road, dies of his injuries after a shootout with Ritchie. Macklin and Haley are forced to abandon their car and walk to the nearest airport. On the way, they flag down a ride with the local sheriff, who takes them the rest of the way to the airport. They find a pilot with a four-seater willing to take them to the United States, but the plane runs out of gas and they are forced to land on an empty beach until they can take off again during daylight hours with the spare tank. Finally, they find another car to drive across the border.

Macklin and Haley learn each other’s true identity at the border, in the U.S. customs office. Macklin still has to work undercover and deliver the smuggled narcotics to his connections. He is backed up by the customs office and the LAPD. Law enforcement plans to go in after the criminals in their hideout, with Macklin taking the lead because the criminals already know him and still think he is one of them. A shootout ensues when the rest of the law enforcement officers arrive at the hideout. Macklin survives, and he and Haley are reunited.

Do any of these plot points sound familiar to you? I know a lot of romantic comedies have similar storylines, but I am thinking specifically of It Happened One Night, the 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable and directed by Frank Capra. The plots of both films are remarkably similar. As far as I know, Borderline is not a remake of anything, let alone It Happened One Night. But I sure kept thinking of It Happened One Night both times that I watched Borderline. It wasn’t hard for me to develop the two lists below, showing the similarities between the two films.

So many things—not just the similarity to It Happened One Night—about watching Borderline were a surprise for me. One is the chemistry between Fred MacMurray’s character, Johnny Macklin, and Claire Trevor’s, Madeleine Haley. I have seen MacMurray in other noirs (Pushover, Double Indemnity) and I can never quite believe him as an homme fatale or a romantic interest. Romance is not the main point of a noir, but the attraction is supposed to sizzle and then burn because it is often the impetus for the commission of a crime or two. I can never be convinced of it, however, between MacMurray and Kim Novack in Pushover, and between MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

That changed with Borderline. The chemistry between Johnny Macklin and Madeleine Haley carries the film. Claire Trevor is fantastic in almost every movie of hers that I have seen, so maybe some of the on-screen magic can be attributed to her remarkable talent. Or maybe MacMurray has finally met his true leading lady.

The lighthearted mood was another surprise. In fact, Borderline could be called a film noir comedy or a noir romance—one without a femme or an homme fatale. The guns, undercover intrigue, betrayals, drug smuggling, murder, attempted murder, and other assorted crimes make Borderline a film noir, but it could also be called a noir romantic comedy. Some of this must be attributable to the screenwriter, Devery Freeman.  The copy of the DVD I watched included a text featurette called quite simply “Film Background.” From it, I learned that Devery Freeman worked on three Red Skelton pictures: The Fuller Brush Man (1948), The Good Humor Man (1950), and Watch the Birdie (1951). In 1956, he wrote the final Abbott and Costello film Dance with Me, Henry. And the text featurette makes the following point:
“. . . In Borderline, Freeman injects quite a bit of humor into the usually humorless film noir.”
I must confess that I didn’t find myself laughing out loud during Borderline, but it certainly has its humorous moments.

And then there’s that believable romance between Johnny Macklin and Madeleine Haley. Borderline is worth a look just for the chance to see a noir romance and to see Claire Trevor in another great performance.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Experiment in Terror (1962)

April 13, 1962, release date
Directed by Blake Edwards
Screenplay by the Gordons (Mildred Gordon, Gordon Gordon)
Based on Operation Terror by Mildred Gordon, Gordon Gordon
Music by Henry Mancini
Edited by Patrick McCormack
Cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop

Glenn Ford as John “Rip” Ripley
Lee Remick as Kelly Sherwood
Stefanie Powers as Toby Sherwood
Ross Martin as Garland Humphrey “Red” Lynch
Roy Poole as Owen Bradley
Patricia Huston as Nancy Ashton
Ned Glass as Jim “Popcorn” Durgs
Anita Loo as Lisa Soong
Warren Hsieh as Joey Soong
Clarence Lung as Yung, Lisa’s lawyer
Clifton James as Captain Moreno
Al Avalon as the man who picks up Kelly at the nightclub
Gilbert Green as the FBI chief
William Bryant as Chuck, FBI agent
Dick Crockett as an FBI agent
James Lanphier as Mr. Cutter, Nancy Ashton’s landlord
Sidney Miller as the drunk
Frederic Downs as Welk
Sherry O’Neil as Edna
Mari Lynn as Penny
Harvey Evans as Dave
William Sharon as Raymond Burkhart
Don Drysdale as himself (pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers)

Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Produced by Geoffrey-Kate Productions

Glenn Ford is one of my favorite noir actors—one of my all-time favorite actors—and I looked forward to seeing him in this neo-noir directed by Blake Edwards. And I wasn’t disappointed. Experiment in Terror is a very stylish adaptation of the novel Operation Terror by the husband-and-wife team of Gordon Gordon and Mildred Nixon Gordon. This story of a woman attacked in her own home and coerced into stealing money from the bank where she works is full of tension and suspense. When the DVD I was watching cut out exactly halfway through the film, I went to my local library to get another copy as soon as I could!

For viewers, the tension in the story starts right away after the credits. Viewers know nothing about Kelly Sherwood, not even her name, when she drives over the San Francisco Bridge and the credits roll. When the credits are finished, Kelly Sherwood pulls into her garage and turns off the motor of her Fairlane car. Her garage door closes, and she thinks she hears something or someone in the garage with her. She becomes more and more fearful because she hears a strange sound, something like ragged breathing. Then a man grabs her suddenly from behind. While he holds her by her neck, he threatens her and her sister Toby if Kelly doesn’t agree to steal money from the bank where she works. (The film was originally released in the United Kingdom under the title The Grip of Fear, which is also an apt title.)

The man knows a lot about Kelly Sherwood and her sister Toby. He’s the one who reveals Kelly’s identity and even some intimate details about her and her sister’s schedules and habits. He threatens to assault both of them and kill them if Kelly won’t steal $100,000. He threatens to kill Kelly immediately if she calls the police. Once he leaves Kelly in the garage, she enters her house and makes the phone call to the FBI anyway.

John Ripley is the FBI agent who answers Sherwood’s call, but the man is still in the Sherwood home and attacks Sherwood. He gives her only this one chance: If she calls again, he’ll kill her. But Ripley knows that the phone call was ended abruptly, and he and other agents in the FBI office start calling Sherwoods listed in the local phone directories (the film was made when phone directories were still printed and distributed to telephone company customers). One of the agents finds the right Sherwood, but Kelly is hesitant about talking; she doesn’t want the intruder to know that agents at the FBI office called her back. Kelly Sherwood is resourceful, however; she pretends to talk to someone who has lost a lighter so she can give out details about her workplace as a meeting place, a sort of lost and found where someone could retrieve a lost item. Ripley puts surveillance details on Sherwood’s house and on the bank where she works.

(This blog post about Experiment in Terror contains spoilers.)

Nancy Ashton comes to the FBI office to talk to an agent about a friend in serious trouble, and she is assigned to Ripley. She leaves without giving many details, but she calls the FBI office again and asks Ripley to come to her home to talk about the criminal trouble her friend is in. Another FBI agent, Owen Bradley, accompanies Ripley to Ashton’s apartment, but when they arrive, they find Ashton dead. Soon, the apartment is swarming with investigators, and an FBI agent finds a piece of paper with Sherwood’s name and address on it in Nancy Ashton’s purse. It appears that the cases are connected.

Experiment in Terror comes with some twists, and some of them lead nowhere, which is probably very realistic and the most common experience of any law enforcement officer. For example, the man threatening Kelly Sherwood leaves a note in her sister’s bag when the sister, Toby, is at a swimming pool with her boyfriend. He wants to scare both Kelly and Toby, and the move is effective because the note asks Kelly to meet him alone at the Roaring Twenties nightclub. She decides to meet him, and she leaves the nightclub with a man, a stranger, that she thinks is an accomplice. It turns out that he thinks Sherwood is a prostitute, and the whole incident provides nothing about the identity of the would-be bank robber or any clues about his plans.

The FBI tracks down enough information about the man to know that he is Garland Humphrey “Red” Lynch and already has a lengthy criminal record. He likes Asian women, and one of them is Lisa Soong, but she seems to be another lead that goes nowhere. Ripley and Bradley track her down and interview her. She says that she doesn’t know Red Lynch. When they press her, she says that she wants to talk to her lawyer before she’ll talk any more to Ripley and Bradley. Once the lawyer shows up and offers his advice, Lisa Soong admits that she does know Red Lynch, but she hasn’t seen him recently and doesn’t know where he lives.

Ripley and Bradley find it hard to believe that Soong has seen Lynch only a few times since they met two years ago, so they decide to put her under surveillance. They follow Soong to the Kaiser Foundation Hospital, where she visits her six-year-old son Joey. Ripley talks to the boy about what he knows about Lynch, but it isn’t much. Ripley then confronts Soong, who doesn’t believe Ripley when he tells her that Lynch is a rapist and a murderer. Lynch has been very good to her and her son: He pays for Joey’s costly medical bills. The film spends a lot of time examining this plot point, but viewers never learn why Lisa Soong is such an important part of the investigation. Perhaps the uncertainty is meant to add to the unease, but I still wanted to know more Soong’s connection to the case.

If I have any complaint at all about Experiment with Terror, it’s the length: I wish the film had been a little bit shorter. I found myself wishing some of the later scenes had been faster paced. They were a little too drawn out and didn’t always keep up the suspense of the first half of the film. The director chose to linger on some shots and on some scenes, seemingly to draw out the tension, but I just didn’t think it worked in the last half of the film. I was craving progress in the story and more detail, not shots that lingered.

The film is based on the novel Operation Terror, which I read after seeing the film. I thought it would fill in some of the gaps presented in the film. For instance, in the film adaptation, Nancy Ashton’s connection to Garland Lynch and to Kelly Sherwood is never made clear; Agent Ripley offers a guess that Ashton probably found herself in a position similar to Kelly Sherwood’s, but nothing more is said about her once she has been found murdered. Lisa Soong’s connection to Lynch seems to be based solely on the fact that he has a predilection for Asian women, but that doesn’t explain his willingness to pay for her son’s numerous and expensive medical bills. The film never offers a motive for Lynch’s victimization of women in general, although maybe that, too, is the point: Evil doesn’t always have an explanation. (I’ll have to write more about the novel Operation Terror in a future blog post.)

I thought the camera work and the photography were beautiful when I first saw the film, but I could really appreciate each scene so much more when I took some screenshots for this blog post. The opening credits over the black-and-white shots of San Francisco at night let viewers know right away that they will be in for a treat. The musical score, courtesy of Henry Mancini, is perfect for building the tension in the story and adds to the stylishness of the film. And did I mention that the film ends rather spectacularly on the baseball field in Candlestick Park? In spite of any misgivings that I might have about plot gaps, Glenn Ford is definitely not the only reason to see Experiment in Terror.